Meagen O’Connell couldn’t stomach the thought of missing her son’s games.
Her son, Camp, a junior linebacker, was preparing for his high school football season at Weddington High School in Union County.
COVID already delayed the season, now an executive order limiting fans to 100 made it about impossible for families to attend games. This could be a big year for Camp; Weddington has won the State 3-A Championship three out of the past four years, including 2019, the last year it was played.
“I am a high school parent, and the circle of friends I have are all high school parents with kids that play sports. We were all talking about how are we are going to get into these games? “said O’Connell. “Many of us have never missed a game since they were 5 years old. So, I thought, What can I do? I can’t sit and complain. I had to do something.”
O’Connell started an on-line petition asking Gov. Roy Cooper to raise the fan limit for venues with fewer than 10,000 seats. She garnered 45,000 signatures in two weeks.
“We talk about business being essential, I think we need to view our kids as being essential. I have said from the beginning, I think the kids that are in high school are the forgotten ones in the pandemic,” O’Connell told Carolina Journal. “I think the time is right. I think they deserve a break. They deserve to have their families around. They deserve to have people supporting them and cheering them on. They deserve to hear the roar of the crowd.”
Cooper has limited large outdoor venues with 10,000 or more seats to 7% capacity. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers were able to host 5,240 fans inside 74,867-seat Bank of America Stadium for most games this season. At the October Bank of America Roval 400 NASCAR race, 6,600 fans were able to watch in the 95,000-seat Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The 100-person limit means both parents can’t attend. Coaches leave their wives and children at home. Future players from middle schools, the lifeblood keeping high school programs going, can’t watch. Cheerleaders and bands are left behind.
Not to mention the financial hit, as ticket sales from football help make all high school sports possible.
The controversy has reached a boiling point in the western part of the state, where Haywood County Schools tried to bring in 3,500 temporary seats to Pisgah Memorial Stadium. The move boosted seating capacity to more than 10,000, thus allowing 600 extra fans for Tuscola and Pisgah rivalry, the Asheville Citizen Times reported.
“The county fire marshal was on board, but the N.C. High School Athletics Association rejected the proposal this week, citing a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services ruling,” the paper said.
“We now know this clearly rests at the governor’s feet,” Haywood County Schools associate superintendent Trevor Putnam told the Citizen Times. “We will pursue any and all channels (to raise the limit). … It’s very frustrating.”
Haywood County’s school board meeting briefly considered ignoring the 100-person limit but has since backed off.
Now, the General Assembly is prepared to take up the cause.
Todd Johnson, R-Union, has filed a bill that would change the attendance cap to 40% of seating capacity, or 40 fans per 100 seats.
“Many parents have contacted my office with the legitimate complaint that they can’t watch their children compete in outdoor sports even though many facilities can hold much more than 100 people and still abide by social distancing guidelines,” Johnson said. “The current 100-person limit is unreasonable and ignores the reality that many outdoor high school sports facilities are very large and can accommodate many more socially distanced fans.”
Johnson points to Cuthbertson High School in Union County. Its football stands can hold 2,976 people, yet Cooper’s restriction allows for only 100, or 3% capacity. Under Johnson’s bill, 1,190 fans could attend games at Cuthbertson.
Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, is sponsoring the senator’s “Let Them Play and Let Us Watch” bill in the House. He told CJ the 100-person limit lacks rational basis.
“High School football is an important part of the culture in small town North Carolina,” Brody said. “There is plenty of room in many high school stadiums to allow fans while social distancing and keeping everybody safe. South Carolina has been opening things back up. Virginia has been opening things back up. We are starting to look ridiculous. We can be on the side of parents and High School athletes and safety all at the same time.”
Will Cooper relent?
“I understand parents wanting to come see their students at ballgames,” Cooper said Feb. 17. “I remember playing high school football and basketball and seeing my parents up there every time along with my grandparents, so I know how much that means.”
“That’s something that health experts are working on, they’re looking at the data,” Cooper said, “and hopefully we’ll see some changes in that area when we make the announcement on the new executive order next week.”
A change to the order goes beyond high school sports. College baseball started this past weekend, with N.C. State, the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest, and East Carolina hosting exciting series with just a handful of family and friends in the stands.
After cancelling their seasons last year, North Carolina’s 10 minor league baseball teams are hoping to welcome fans back in April. Not to mention a host of summer concerts, festivals, and parades wanting to reorganize after a lost season.
Should Cooper alter the effective ban on fans at indoor sporting events, (50-fan limit) the Atlantic Coast Conference has said it would reconsider the policy of playing without fans at the men’s and women’s ACC Tournament in March. The NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes are off to a strong start and would like to welcome a small number of fans back to PNC Arena.
Meanwhile, Meagen O’Connell wants to watch her son play. She hopes her efforts, with the backing of parents from across the state, will result in a change just in time for kick-off.